Styles & Forms | Ragtime | Jazz

A forerunner of jazz, ragtime was derived from brass-band music and European folk melodies, African-American banjo music and spirituals, minstrel songs, military marches and European light classics.

The ‘raggy’ style, or ragged-time feeling, of this jaunty, propulsive, toe-tapping piano music refers to its inherent syncopation, where loud right-hand accents fall between the strong beats of the left-hand rather than on top of them. One noted practitioner, the pianist Eubie Blake (composer of the 1920s hit song ‘I’m Just Wild About Harry’), summed it up simply: ‘Ragtime is syncopation and improvising and accents’.

While this highly syncopated style involved only limited improvisation and lacked a jazz-swing feel, it directly informed the work of the early jazz giant Jelly Roll Morton and served as a precursor to the Harlem stride piano movement of the 1920s, pioneered by James P. Johnson, Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith and Fats Waller. Ragtime could be heard as early as the 1880s in camps of workers building the great railroads across the American continent, as well as in travelling minstrel shows and vaudeville shows. By 1892, the composer Charles Ives had come across it in his home town of Danbury, Connecticut. At the Chicago World’s Fair that same year, many people heard ragtime for the first time. By 1896, the first pieces labelled ‘ragtime’ were published. The following year, some 20 rags were published. By 1899, 120 rags were issued in New Orleans.

As piano rolls and sheet music appeared at the turn of the century, a ragtime fad swept the nation. Hordes of young people shocked their parents by kicking up their heels to this infectious new music, which was described alternately by critics and newspaper columnists as ‘syncopation gone mad’ and ‘the product of our decadent art culture’.

The Ragtime King

Although Scott Joplin became the figurehead for this burgeoning new American music movement, there were several ragtime piano players who preceded him, including Walter Gould (known as One Leg Shadow), Tom Turpin,  James Scott and One-Leg Willie Joseph, along with other ivory-tinkling ‘professors’ who plied their trade in brothels, gambling joints, saloons and private clubs. Following the phenomenal success of Joplin’s ‘Maple Leaf Rag’, which sold 75,000 copies of sheet music in 1899 for the publisher John Stark and 500,000 copies within 10 years, he was dubbed ‘King of Ragtime Writers’ and presided over ragtime’s reign as the main popular musical style of the US for nearly 20 years.

The son of a former slave, born in Texarkana, a town in the northeast corner of Texas, on 24 November 1868, Joplin was a piano prodigy with a musical education financed by his mother’s work as a domestic servant. With aspirations to become a classical concert pianist, he played at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1892 and later enrolled at the George R. Smith College for Negroes in Sedalia, Missouri (where he would write ‘Maple Leaf Rag’). In 1901, Joplin moved to St. Louis...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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